It seems fairly evident at this point that “ex-gay therapy” is a) ineffective and b) a traumatic way of addressing what’s actually a totally normal and healthy identity. But there was a time when that wasn’t the case. Back in 1970 when Kirk Murphy’s mother entered him into ‘treatment’ by George Rekers, it seemed like the responsible thing to do. And as Gabriel Arana discusses in his fantastic piece “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,” there were “sympathetic cover [stories] on change therapy” and full-page ads for it from Christian coalitions in the New York Times as recently as 1998. People could no longer really ignore the reality of homosexuality, but they were still able to hold onto the hope that it could be, if not cured, then at least mitigated; at least it could be successfully relegated to a corner of one’s life where no one else had to confront it.
A large part of that conviction was a study conducted by a researcher named Robert Spitzer in 2001. It didn’t claim that ex-gay therapy worked, exactly, but after interviews with 200 ex-gay patients, it came to the conclusion that “at least for a highly select group of motivated individuals, it worked.” Whereas most of the ‘research’ around ex-gay therapy was easily exposed as junk science or was clearly conducted by biased researchers, Spitzer had actually led the charge to have homosexuality declassified as a mental illness by the APA. It seemed like a study from Spitzer, of all people, that validated anything about ex-gay therapy was beyond reproach — and so the specter of “conversion therapy” was propped up for perhaps much longer than it would have been otherwise.
But this week, Robert Spitzer has spoken out to retract that study. When Arana contacts him as part of his essay researching and deconstructing his own history with ex-gay therapy, Spitzer says that “the critiques are largely correct” of the study that has been cited so enthusiastically by so many anti-gay organizations. Ultimately, he says, his study only speaks to how (some) ex-gay patients speak about their own experiences. And as we’re well aware, ex-gay patients who report complete success in repressing their sexual orientation aren’t particularly reliable — Arana points out John Paulk, Richard Cohen, and Michael Johnston as a short list of examples. Spitzer says he’s tried before to speak with journals about publishing a retraction, but was declined; now he’d like to put the study to rest once and for all.
So far, only four months in, 2012 is a year of blows to anti-gay rhetoric and organizations. The revelation of NOM’s shockingly nonchalant race-baiting tactics lost them a lot of credibility with anyone who still believes they’re a credible organization. While ex-gay therapy has already experienced a serious decline — Arana notes that even Exodus International is now “encouraging its ministries to promote celibacy rather than change” — it’s now lost the most successful piece of “evidence” it had going for it, and it doesn’t have anything to replace it with. While some people still resist a shift in thinking — Arana (who has spent time institutionalized and suicidal) reports that his former “ex-gay” therapist asked him, incredibly, “For all this concern about how I damage people, where is the damage?… don’t you think there’d be a busload of people who are damaged?” — it feels like for most rational people, an acknowledgement of the facts as they now appear is obvious. If Arana talks about a sort of “golden age” of mainstream acceptance of the logic behind anti-gay rhetoric, we may now be seeing its end; an inevitable collapse of something that never quite held up under scrutiny in the first place. And while it may not have come quite in time for some, like Arana or his cohort of ex-gay therapy ‘graduates,’ it’s better late than never.